Well, it’s finally happened (again): I’ve reached the point when I can’t stand to watch the alleged “news” on TV for more than a few moments.
We are living in an important, tragic and fascinating moment of human history. (We almost always are, although we often don’t recognize it.) Revolutions in the Middle East have won tenuous success even as others face repression. A horrible earthquake followed by a devastating tsunami has savaged a major nation. A nuclear power plant is crippled and perhaps out of control.
At one level, this is the moment modern news communications services were built for. Advanced technology, instantaneous communication and an endlessly proliferating stream of outlets on cable and on the internet have led to seemingly boundless opportunities to find out what’s going on—in what amounts to real time. It’s a transformative moment in the making of an interconnected world.
And what do we get on CNN and its ilk? The tyranny of the local. When Egypt and Tunisia were “hot,” there was coverage of events there … until gas prices started to rise, and the insane Glenn Beck started spouting his fantasies about the ways Facebook and Google were advancing the cause of triumphalist, fundamentalist Islam. Libya was hot … until the earthquake and the tsunami. So now, as Gaddhafi crushes his opponents, and as Saudi Arabia abets Bahrain in overwhelming protests there, what do US news audiences see as “news”? Stories on whether it’s smart to buy iodine tablets to protect against radiation sickness.
Don’t get me wrong: I think the crisis at the nuclear plant in Japan is a big, important story. My point is: the US media isn’t actually covering it … at least not any more. If you watch the “news,” there’s actually almost nothing about what’s happening at the plant. This, in part, is because the news coming from there is incomplete, complex and perhaps inaccurate, but it’s also because it doesn’t “sell”: stories about the workings (or non-workings) of nuclear plants are, at some base level, boring. Stories about how your children are going to be irradiated are exciting—no matter how baseless they are.
This reality—that the media shift to whatever the hot story of the moment is, chasing “next” like a pack of dogs chasing a fox—is, of course, a long term issue in the US. Among other things, it’s why Sarah Palin has been successful in recent years as she manipulates the media: she offers a stupid tweet, people go crazy discussing it, and then about the time the attention dies down, she offers another stupid tweet, and the cycle begins again. But it’s also why most Americans think you can balance the budget by eliminating foreign aid or cutting teachers’ pensions: the facts are lost in the litany of silly moments. We are less informed than we ought to be in this “information” age.
Now, I wonder where I can get some iodine tablets? Oh, never mind: some ref blew a call during an NCAA tournament game. And did you hear what Sarah Palin said?